Vladimir Putin has declared martial law in four occupied regions and given security forces sweeping powers in a sign the Russian president is struggling to regain the military initiative nearly eight months into the invasion of Ukraine.
The move, which includes broad restrictions on travel including vehicle checks and “economic mobilisation” in much of western and southern Russia, is Putin’s latest escalation as his army continues to cede ground to Ukraine.
Demanding the “entire system of state administration” contribute to the war effort, Putin on Wednesday authorised Russia’s governors to maintain public order, ensure supplies for the armed forces and to protect critical infrastructure. The measures, which are one step below martial law, cover eight regions bordering Ukraine, including the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
Putin also set up a “co-ordination council” led by Russia’s cabinet to streamline support for the invasion forces. Prime minister Mikhail Mishustin said the council would focus on military equipment and supplies as well as construction and transport logistics.
The revamped security measures come in response to Kyiv’s continued successes in counteroffensives in occupied regions, including an advance on the southern city of Kherson, and rising tensions at home over Russia’s faltering invasion.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that “Russia has started a new stage of terror in the temporarily occupied territories” by introducing martial law.
US president Joe Biden said that Putin “finds himself in an incredibly difficult position” in which his only remaining tool is to “brutalise” citizens and “intimidate them into capitulating — they aren’t going to do that”.
Putin’s attempt to raise the stakes last month by mobilising the army’s reserves, illegally annexing four occupied southern and eastern regions in a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin, and threatening to use nuclear weapons to defend them has largely backfired.
Russia’s failures prompted unusually harsh criticism of the Kremlin from pro-war hardliners who have urged Putin to step up his assault on Ukraine. In response, he appointed Sergei Surovikin, a notoriously ruthless general, to be in sole charge of Russia’s invasion forces and launched a series of air strikes targeting critical infrastructure.
The threat of martial law — a vaguely worded point in the decree allows Putin to enact “other measures” — raises the prospect that Russia could put the whole country on a war footing.
Putin continues to insist the war is a “special military operation”, a term evoking far-off conflicts that allowed most Russians to go about their lives as normal until the mobilisation drive.
But Russia’s provisions on martial law allow Moscow to introduce stricter controls of transport and critical infrastructure, bans on all public gatherings, total wartime censorship, “additional responsibilities” for citizens, broad economic restrictions and more limits on movement — up to a possible exit ban for Russian citizens.
The Kremlin and regional officials attempted to play down the significance of the enhanced security measures in Russia. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said there would be no border closures, while the governors of several border regions claimed nothing would change for locals under the decree.
Putin said de facto martial law already existed in the occupied Ukrainian regions.
The Ukrainian army has been advancing slowly towards the city of Kherson over the past month in a counter-offensive intended to force a Russian retreat to the other side of the Dnipro river.
In comments seen as laying the groundwork for a possible surrender of Kherson, the only provincial capital Russia has captured in the war, Surovikin said it would need to make “hard decisions” to ensure control of the wider southern region.
Occupation authorities in Kherson said they began evacuating residents from the western bank of the Dnipro river as its Kremlin-appointed leader warned of a looming offensive by Kyiv. On Wednesday, Russian state television aired video of what it claimed was a long queue of residents preparing to board ferries that would take them to the Dnipro’s eastern banks, a part of the Kherson region that is more tightly controlled by Russian forces.
But the claims of evacuation and an impending attack were part of a Russian disinformation campaign to lay the groundwork for an armed provocation that Moscow will blame on Kyiv, Ukrainian authorities said on Wednesday.
Serhiy Kuzan, an adviser at Ukraine’s defence ministry, said the evacuation announcement amounted to a “forced deportation of civilians who have been taken hostage and are being exploited” and that warnings of Ukrainian strikes were part of an “information campaign”.
“They are setting the narrative before a planned provocation, in which they will blame Ukraine for the bombing of the city of Kherson or civilians,” Kuzan told the Financial Times. “This is an information cover operation for what they plan to do. This means that something will happen for which they will blame Ukraine.”